Breaking the Mental Health Stigma in Construction: How to Ask for Help

By Joe Davies, MSED, ATC, CISM, Athletic Training Division Director at Onsite Innovations

Originally published October 18, 2023 in OH&S.

Imagine being on a boat tour of Niagara Falls. At the start of the tour, and from a distance, you have a full view of the falls. They’re powerful and majestic. But as the boat gets closer and closer, slowly and over time you can’t see as much. You’re getting wet, losing sight of what’s around you. You lose perspective. That’s how a mental health crisis can feel. You might not realize how wet you’re getting until you’re right under the falls getting soaked, and by that point, turning around to dry land feels impossible.

Being “in the mist” is a common analogy used to describe someone at risk of having a mental health crisis. Oftentimes, you don’t realize how deep in the storm you were or how heavy it was until you’re on the other side. But if you’re experiencing a mental health concern, you don’t have to face the storm alone. It’s important to reach out and get the help you need before a light rain turns into a hurricane.

The Mental Health Stigma in Construction

If you are feeling alone about your own mental well-being, the truth is you are not alone. About 1 in 4 adults experience a diagnosable mental health disorder in a given year, including depression and anxiety. An even higher percentage experience symptoms of each, while not being diagnosed. The construction industry has one of the highest rates of suicide compared to other industries. While it’s clear that there is a mental health crisis occurring both nationally and within the construction industry, the stigma around mental health in the construction industry remains high. In a survey of construction workers, 78% said shame and stigma were a top reason workers needing help with mental health may not seek it.

If you’re in the 78%, ask yourself this: Do you know someone who went through a difficult time and struggled? Were you judgmental of them or did you feel like you could relate to them? There is a higher chance that you connected with at least part of their struggle, and if you connected with them, others will connect with you. It’s often ingrained in the psyche of construction workers to “grin and bear it” when it comes to mental health and even physical health issues, but ignoring them will only make them harder to overcome down the line.

Changing Your Mindset on Mental Health

To break the stigma, we need to change our mindset on mental health. Consider that professional athletes not only have physical therapists and athletic trainers; they also have mental health coaches. Because it takes more than physical health to win, it requires mental preparation and wellness to overcome obstacles and adversity during a game. A starting quarterback could easily say, we’re down by 14 with only 2 minutes left and just give up. But they don’t, and that requires mental resilience.

While athletes undergo a lot of physical and mental strain and pressure on the job, construction workers experience the same demands if not more on the construction site. If you’re not in the right headspace, it can impact your focus and not only lead to decreased productivity but potentially risky behaviors and safety incidents. For example, a crane operator who isn’t focused on their task could accidentally injure their colleague. You want to treat your mental health the same way an athlete would treat a sore back, working on it before it turns into an injury. An athlete might grin and bear it during a game, but afterwards they make sure to get the help they need to heal and reach their peak performance.

Taking Care of Your Mental Health and Asking for Help

Your mental health impacts your performance on the job and in all aspects of your life. Construction is a tough line of work, and that toughness often carries over into health and wellness. Being aware of your emotions is often not seen positively in the construction industry, leading most workers to feel the need to suppress their feelings. You might call it a “masculine armor” that both male and female construction workers put on. It can be scary to take that armor down and open up about how you’re feeling, but talking to someone about what’s going on in your life is a small act that can have a big impact on your mental health and wellness.

Many of the best construction sites today have onsite care providers who are well-equipped to discuss mental health and wellbeing with you. Starting a conversation with your onsite clinician or provider at your job site is a great way to ease into talking about your mental health. You don’t have to dump all your feelings at once, instead you can start by asking them “I’m having a hard time staying focused on the job, how would you handle that?” This is a soft conversation opener that allows you to test the environment and get more comfortable before sharing your feelings. The health practitioners at your job site are there to care for you – the whole you. Athletic trainers or nurse practitioners are well-versed in patient confidentiality and can help you talk through different ways to approach some of your stressors that might be impacting your mental health.

With the nature of construction work, health issues are often something that workers don’t want to talk about for fear of losing a job. But that’s what onsite care providers are there for, and the sooner you seek treatment for mental or physical ailments, the sooner you’ll get better. Another way you can start a conversation is by asking a practitioner if they have anything to treat an ailment. That gives you a chance to meet with them one-on-one and talk casually about what’s going on in your life. Onsite clinics are judgement free zones, and any practitioner will be eager to get to know you and work with you.

Clear Skies Ahead

Asking for help is a big step on a journey toward better mental health. It’s often the biggest hurdle that you have to overcome to get out of the storm. It doesn’t have to be scary, just talking to someone about your life and what’s going on with you is a great place to start, and the conversation can flow from there. While some stigma remains in construction, the way the industry and the world approaches mental health is evolving at a much faster pace than before the pandemic. More and more construction employers are embracing the whole health and wellness of workers and establishing supportive work environments. These changes will help reduce the stigma around mental health and bring a greater focus to improving well-being. Remember, there is nothing to lose in reaching out, but it could mean having everything to gain.

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